An Open Letter to Anyone Afraid of the Decay of Democracy

Jessie Garbeil, Scarlet Staff

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In September, a whistleblower revealed that President Donald Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine if its president did not investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

Washington was in chaos. An impeachment inquiry began. Republican senators ranted about the unfairness of it all. Legal analysts debated whether a crime was committed. Donald Trump took to Twitter to vent his frustrations. 

Most people were not shocked or even surprised. Today’s political climate very often feels like a circus, a storm, or any other metaphor of choice; it is larger than life, surreal, and usually absolutely terrifying. 

It is easy to lose faith in democracy. It is easy to wonder if “the great experiment” of the founding fathers was always doomed to fail. It is easy to focus on the worst-case scenario and assume that something has dramatically changed and that democracy no longer flourishes the way that it once did. The flaw in any of this reasoning and these sudden conclusions is that democracy – in America or elsewhere – has never been particularly great. It is undoubtedly preferable to other regimes we see around the world – autocracy, totalitarian governments, and dictatorships – but it has always been flawed and entirely human. Democracy is inherently idealistic in theory; it relies on an often incorrect assumption that people are selfless, willing to relinquish power and compromise, and receptive to opinions other than their own. 

There is nothing new about the current political state of affairs. There is nothing new or revolutionary about the presence of corruption, the selfishness of so many people, or political unrest. It is “business as usual,” and it is unwise to become too caught up in the fear that perhaps American-style democracy has finally, after all of these years, failed us. American-style democracy failed long ago: it failed with Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears, it failed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans, and it failed with Bill Clinton’s initiation of “the war on drugs” that disproportionately harms minority and lower-class populations. America is only a success story in that it has survived civil wars, attacks by outside nations, and nearly two and a half centuries with one relatively stable political system in place. It has faced incompetent, bigoted, and power-hungry presidents before, and it has survived. 

Throughout the world, the same pattern holds true. While some democratic governments are in peril, this is nothing new, and, in other nations, democracy is beginning to take hold and establish better living conditions and personal liberties for their people. Democracy is neither a failure nor a success; it is an ongoing experiment with ups and downs, a roller coaster of governance that, if strong enough, survives through the chaos. 

That said, democracy is incredibly fragile. It can shatter overnight; concerns over the flaws in democracy, both in America and internationally, should not be neglected. They are legitimate and a consistently real possibility. Both the American government and the international community face urgent problems and concerns, such the rapidly approaching doomsday scenario of climate change, the apparent rise of right-wing nationalist groups throughout the world, and the violations of human rights around the world that are too often ignored or pushed to the background. The decay of democracy is not among these urgent concerns. The quiet erosion of democratic government is very real, but it is not yet a cause for immediate alarm. It is not new, but rather gradual and, most likely, completely inevitable.